I’ve Got Sin on My Mind

One of my seminary professors defined sin as those things that keep us out of relationship with God.

After three days of reading about the murder of Dr. Tiller and the range of responses from both sides of the abortion debate, the one that pierced my heart came not from an anonymous or unknown so-called "pro-lifer" but from a mainline colleague, and a woman at that.

Abortion, she wrote, is sin.

I look back at the person I was in 1992, prior to receiving a prenatal diagnosis, prior to asking that question of God and myself in a personal way. I was 30. I had two small children. I had an unhappy and questionable marriage. I had an active life in my church.

I had a relationship with God, a lively one I would have said. I participated in Bible study. I volunteered at my church. I prayed. I lived a life I understood to be moral.

Sexually, I had a very clean record, having waited, as my mother advised, until my wedding night.

And I thought I knew everything. I "knew" that things worked out for good people and that bad things happened to people who sinned.

And I have to tell you that in that moment, on that April afternoon that the doctor called to give us the news, I was out of relationship with God. But I would argue about which one of us had abandoned the effort.

I grappled for a long time about the reasons for terminating the pregnancy. The baby had a condition that might or might not have been incompatible with life. A significant percentage might not survive to be born, while others would live. The array of possible side complications were not immediately identifiable at that moment and time was short to make a decision. We were told on Monday night that we needed to call back the next morning. If it didn't happen by Friday, the only doctor in the state who performed the procedure would be leaving on vacation, and his return two weeks later would be too late.

Although statistics vary (I've read 90% and even 95% as a termination rate for this condition), it's not a story people are telling. It's a moral grey area, I guess. I certainly saw it that way at the time and even to allude to it feels risky now. Especially now.

Last night I read a story on Andrew Sullivan's blog about a woman whose family objected when she chose to have an ectopic pregnancy terminated. What??!?!!!! An ectopic pregnancy always ends that way, to save the life of the woman. How was that a choice? It pointed up for me that one person's "choice" is another person's "obvious" and yet another person's "hard but right decision."

A friend of my mother's was pregnant in the 1950s when her houseful of young children came down with the German Measles. Her family doctor recommended terminating the pregnancy. He took into account the ages of the children, the capacity of the family to incorporate a child with an impairment; like Dr. Tiller's father, he performed an illegal abortion for the sake, as he understood it, of the woman and the whole family.

A high school friend whose religious leanings took a charismatic bent did what I never did; she slept with her boyfriend in college, over and over, unprotected because it was always unplanned. When her mother took her for an abortion, unblinkingly, my friend justified the abortion theologically as a "blood sacrifice."

There are all kinds of words, all sorts of ways of justifying ourselves. I have my words, too.

I'll tell you one thing this experience did for me and to me. It led me to a more nuanced understanding of people and their lives and their decisions. It led me to a more authentic relationship with God and a more, though not perfectly, forgiving relationship with others. Through a terrible loss, I became a fuller person, with a broader mind and a kinder heart.

These days I don't spend a lot of time pondering sin. I assume we all have things in our lives that get between us and God. As a pastor and a writer and a mother and a friend, I look for the ways we can reconnect and try to live them myself and point to them for others. It's not so categorical, and for people of some strands of belief, I realize that's unacceptable. Our expressions of faith can be different, I do believe that.

It's just that the word "sin" still hurts me, and that surprised me.

It's a powerful, accusatory word, the kind of word that riles people up and leads not to mutual understanding or reconciliation but to condemnation and, in this recent case, assassination. I felt strongly that the act of the shooter was wrong, but I've got to tell you, I never even thought the word "sin."

16 thoughts on “I’ve Got Sin on My Mind”

  1. So you “sinned” The whole way the world is that the babies we conceive cannot all be born healthy and whole and raised with love and security is sin. I think of Romans 8 where Paul says the whole creation is groaning in travail while we wait redemption. We live with and in and around sin. We acknowledge it sadly, we throw ourselves on the mercy of God and we do our best to live as though the new creation were already here.
    I always think of Ted Peter’s book “Radical Evil” where he says real evil is when you try to draw a line and say – those people are sin and I am not. So when someone says “abortion is sin” as though it had nothing to do with them is not is evil. Of course you can get in a circular argument because even as I try to distance myself from those who do that – I become part of that very evil myself. That’s the point.
    There are different ways of looking at sin. Some try to excuse it and say it doesn’t exist, it’s too negative, it’s too judging, it makes us feel bad. I say it’s real and nobody escapes it. And God forgives us all. And the only way for us to live in this world is to forgive as well.
    Now I may steal some of what I just wrote for my own blog.

  2. This is an amazing post. Thank you for your courage.
    Joelle, if I understand Songbird’s post correctly, I think her point is that she doesn’t appreciate people calling her terrible decision sin. Which is what you just did.

  3. Although I commented on the post you speak about, I must have been troubled by the “sin” part of it as I woke up at 4 am thinking about it. I wonder at naming something as sin yet acknowledging that sometimes it is necessary.
    I’ve written this comment over and over and I’m not getting out what I mean to say, so what I will say is this is a powerful post. Thank you for your searing honesty, and hugs.

  4. Thanks for the post. I don’t know whether abortion is sin or not. I do know that greed, self-centeredness, judgment, absence of love, pride are sins. I know that I live a sinful life. That’s between me and God to work out. I believe we all live sinful lives. We all fall short of what God calls us to do and who God calls us to be. I believe that God loves and cares for us. I believe that the struggle with a hard decision is important. I feel really uncomfortable telling someone that a particular act is “sin.” I am not God. And I have enough trouble naming and owning my own sin.

  5. Thank you for speaking up….and I thank God that you have the courage to do so. For too long the pro-lifers have spent much time and energy painting women who seek abortion with a broad (and ugly) brush.
    NPR had an interview with a woman from Va. who went to see Dr. Tiller in Ky. Her situation was similar to yours and the way she was treated and counseled by local medical people was cruel and appalling.
    Perhaps if anything good can come out of the murder of Dr. Tiller, it will be the honest sharing of people like you. Again, thank you.

  6. Mary Beth, that’s why I put quotes on “sin”. Maybe I wasn’t clear about how nobody escapes sin and if abortion is a sin, we are all guilty. None of us can claim to be above and outside of what makes this world broken so that not all children can be born and thrive and grow up in justice and security and freedom.

  7. Thank you, Songbird. Like you, I learned in seminary that sin is whatever separates us from God. From my Navajo husband I learned that it is whatever keeps us out of balance with the rest of the universe. I learned from the Bible that I don’t get to judge other people and say whether or not what they are doing is sin – only God gets to do that.
    Life is filled with grey places. I do believe we err when we engage in absolutes saying, “This is always wrong” or “this is always right.” I don’t believe we should have the right to make a life-changing decision for someone else when we don’t have to live with the daily consequences of that decision.
    I have known a number of women who had to face this decision for many reasons and no matter what the final decision was I know that for each of them it was an extremely difficult struggle. Thanks again for your courage in sharing.

  8. To be clear, I love Mary Beth for leaping to my defense (and for other reasons, too), but I understood the use of the quotation marks. I’m grateful when people express themselves on this difficult topic.

  9. Again, those people who can judge so quickly are simply looking through their own narrow filters with no real perspective. It’s so easy to label things black and white, when truly, there is always some gray in the middle. Jesus did not label people or expect perfection. He simply loved.

  10. This was courageous and moving. I too thank you for posting it.
    Such decisions are never clearcut, I think. And I suspect that the people who are so quick to label sin, are simply trying to distance something in their own lives.

  11. Thank you for this post, Songbird. I have been very moved by the stories of abortion I’ve read this week; Dr. Tiller’s assassination has caused so many people to speak honestly and publicly about their own experiences, and perhaps that truth-telling is one way God is working for good in this tragedy.
    In my “Spirituality & Sexuality” class at ANTS, we talked a lot about the difference between a rule-based ethic, where specific actions are judged to be right or wrong, good or sinful, and a relation-based ethic, where the same action might be either right or wrong, depending on the effect that action has on a relationship. It seems very clear in your telling that your wrenching decision to terminate your pregnancy brought you into closer and more loving relationship with many people and with God.
    At the same time, I think many of us in the mainline are too quick to shy away from the language of sin, for fear of offending our listeners. We’ve all known people who say, “Why do we have to say prayers of confession? After all, I’m not a sinner!” When actually, just by living in the USA in a state of relative comfort, we’re enmeshed in systems of sin — never mind all the little ways that each one of us falls short in our daily lives. I think that by defining a “sinner” as a catastrophically horrible person and not as a regular-old person who makes mistakes, we’re missing out on a potentially-fruitful theological conversation.
    Thanks again for sharing your story — despite all the good that came of it, I’m still sorry that happened to you.

  12. Very, very powerful.
    I never had to make the decision but I’ve been alongside women who have.
    For me, the primary issue is not deciding which abortion is wrong and which one isn’t but, rather, who gets to make the decision.
    And I will always, always, always say that it has to be the woman herself. How could anyone else possibly be qualified?

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